"I found out that I can make any kid smile. It’s probably from having a funny face to begin with-and looking and acting like a kid. And kids can relate to my drawings, because of the simple lines.” (Keith Haring, quoted in J. Gruen, Keith Haring: the Authorized Biography, New York, 1991, p. 114)
“It is as though his pulsating images have already danced their way into the atavistic chambers of the collective mind, as if his characters are now somehow imprinted on ribbons of DNA to be transmitted genetically to future generations.” – Barry Blinderman
(B. Blinderman, ‘And We All Shine On’, in G. Celant (ed.), Keith Haring, Munich 1992, p. 27).
Across its four conjoined canvases, Keith Haring assembles a colorful parade of charismatic figures and animals—dancing, smiling and loving life. On fields of white, burnished red, mustard yellow and pale blue, the dynamic creations for which Haring is known are bought to life; shootings stars career between dancing monkeys, a singing dog dons sneakers, and a mouse cruises around on a skateboard (passing a pig in heels). The colorful menagerie in this vibrant universe of play and dynamic action is interspersed with smiling happy children all rendered in the form of Haring’s unique iconography.
This commanding painting was originally commissioned for the annual Children's Easter Egg Hunt on the White House lawn in the spring of 1988. After the event, the work was donated to the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where it brought joy to patients and visitors alike who enjoyed Haring’s expansive, exuberant vision. As with most of his art, Haring intended for the work to be a spark of happiness and joy, and to promote awareness of the social issues that concerned him.
Haring loved children, and although he did not have any children of his own, he had many god-children and much of his work celebrates the wonderful naivety of their imagined world.
For Haring, painting was an activity that allowed him to envision new states of being: to go beyond the banality of everyday life. “See, when I paint, it is an experience that, at its best, is transcending reality,” he explained. “When it is working, you completely go into another place, you’re tapping into things that are totally universal, of the total consciousness, completely beyond your ego and your own self. That’s what it’s all about” (K. Haring, quoted in D. Sheff, ‘Keith Haring: An Intimate Conversation,’ in Rolling Stone, August 1989). In his complex network of codes, motifs and signifiers, Haring sought a global language, “a more holistic and basic idea of wanting to incorporate [art] into every part of life, less as an egotistical exercise and more natural somehow. I don’t know how to exactly explain it. Taking it off the pedestal. I’m giving it back to the people, I guess” (K. Haring, quoted in D. Drenger, “Art and Life: An Interview with Keith Haring,” in Columbia Art Review, Spring 1988, p. 53).
Haring briefly studied commercial art in Pittsburgh, but his distinctive style was born in New York City. Here he found his inspiration in the city’s vibrant graffiti and alternative art community alongside artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat. His signature style focused on the power of the line, conjuring up cartoonish figures and abstract lines that captured the imaginations of New Yorkers. Working outside of the traditional gallery and museum system, Haring drew on empty ad spaces in the subways from 1980 to 1985, filling the blank black billboards with white chalk lines that would later form his distinct visual vocabulary that made his work so beloved. This was his self-proclaimed “laboratory” for the later large-scale murals and installations for which he is known.
In the mid-1980s, Haring was in his prime. Just a few years earlier, in 1981, he had been hailed as one of the most innovative artists of the decade in Rene Ricard’s seminal article ‘The Radiant Child’, titled after Haring’s own now-iconic motif. Following his first solo exhibition in New York, Haring made his debut with a hugely successful show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1982, paving the way for a steady rise to international acclaim in the years that followed. Like Basquiat, who began life as an unknown street artist, Haring came to prominence within New York’s sprawling system of subways. Upon the blank, black boards awaiting new advertisements, Haring’s pictorial universe came to life in chalk, populated by babies, barking dogs, angels, cartoon people, spaceships, and dolphins.
This high-low blend of cultural references was a natural fit for Haring’s abstraction and commitment to public art. It’s no surprise that he followed this path, as Haring was influenced and encouraged by Andy Warhol. He would go on to open his famed Pop Shop, a store in the SoHo that sold T-shirts, toys, posters, and other objects with reproductions of his art, even as his murals and paintings continued to draw a new audience to the gallery.
The intricate nature of the figures and the sheer vibrancy of the action that is packed into this vast work is a clear demonstration of the exuberant nature and richness of Haring’s visual vocabulary, a vocabulary which is still as potent and relevant today as it was three decades ago. As Blinderman writes, “Adolescents in Japan draw “Haringese” on subway station walls. Haring imagery turns up in clothing shops in Australia, on “help the homeless” signs posted at Orly airport, in greeting card stores in San Francisco, on chopstick wrappers at a Manhattan restaurant’ (B. Blinderman, “And We All Shine On,” in G. Celant (ed.), Keith Haring, Munich 1992, pp. 27-28). Untitled epitomizes Haring’s effervescent creativity and positivity, an icon of fundamental truths and artistic freedom at the heart of an explosion of vibrant youth culture in 1980s New York.